‘Nobody knows you better than your siblings’ quote by unknown CBC broadcaster
In late November my only sister died after a short fight with an aggressive cancer. Just a few years ago my dear younger brother also died of an aggressive cancer. With no living parents, the deaths of my only siblings have left me feeling like an orphan.
Through the grieving I have thought about the nature of sibling relationships. I realize that I took these relationships for granted. Because we lived across the country from each other, contact was infrequent but our shared family bonds kept us close.
Sibling Relationships are Unique
Typically, relationships with brothers and sister are the longest relationships of our lives. These relationships vary with family constellations, gender, birth order and birth spacing. Research shows that sibling relationships play an essential role in our development as individuals and in the evolution of a family.
Because my brother was 2 years younger than I am, we had many shared experiences as children. Living in the country made us close playmates and best friends. Our pets, long hikes in the pastures, bike rides on gravel roads, and secrets from our parents were common to both of us. As the youngest in the family he was out-going and fun-loving, character traits that never changed. We were friendly and cooperative but were also competitive and often jealous of each other. Sibling squabbles were part of each day as was constant teasing and some angry fights. Yet we had a special intimacy that kept us close especially when our dad died suddenly before we were teenagers. Over the years our relationship changed many times as we both matured. We had families of our own, moved great distances away from each other and the sibling relationship became congenial and gradually went on the back burner — until he called me to say he was dying.
My sister was 15 years older than I so I did not know her well until adulthood. I know that she helped care for me as a youngster but most of my memories of her came from our experiences together and the closeness we developed after our mom died. Because of the 15 year birth spacing my sister and I were not competitive nor did we need to strive for parental attention. This relationship was sheer bliss with many fun times. We had a special friendship — a sisterhood — often discussing intimate details of our lives. I was shocked when she died only about 3 months after a cancer diagnosis.
When a Sibling Dies
Although grief after death of a close family member is universal, the grief process is specific to the person who experiences the loss.
The death of each of my siblings evoked intense feelings. When my brother was alive, days would pass without me thinking of him yet since his death, I think of him every day. As my sister’s death is more recent, there is still a sense of disbelief as I struggle to embrace the truth that I can no longer pick up the phone and speak with her..
Just as the world teaches us to love each other, it also teaches the lessons of impermanence. The love I had for my siblings doesn’t stop with their deaths. I realize that time doesn’t heal the loneliness — it just changes the intensity of the emotions. The sense of hopelessness gradually changes to acknowledgement and acceptance. Concurrent with the grieving, a process of self inquiry occurs.
In struggling to understand what my siblings meant to me, some life lessons have emerged:
- It is important to celebrate the relationships we have with people in our lives and honour these relationships — every day.
- Relationships are impermanent and can’t be taken for granted — don’t lose opportunities to stay connected to people who are alive and who love you.
- While feeling stuck may be part of grief, evaluating and moving forward with your own life is essential. Understanding what the sibling meant in your life will affirm and strengthen you.
- This is a time to be kind to yourself and accept the emotions of sadness and melancholy.
Sibling relationships are precious. My life was enhanced by the love, the pain, the frustration, and the joy they gave to me. There was a complexity to these relationships that is difficult to describe and a richness that gave meaning to my family history.
Siblings play an essential role in our development. The relationships we have with brothers and sisters are usually the longest relationships of our lives. Although sibling relationships change over time, they seldom end — except in death. If you are fortunate enough to have on-going relationships with your siblings, savour them, stay close, and celebrate your shared family ties.
I hope you learned from reading this post. It was difficult to write but I decided that many postworksavvy readers are likely facing similar issues of loss of siblings and struggling to find new meaning in a life that feels emptier. If you found the post to be helpful, please email it to others or send your comments. Stay strong, Jeanette